“The first attempt to recruit me into positive thinking occurred at what has been, so far, the low point of my life. If you had asked me, just before the diagnosis of cancer, whether I was an optimist or a pessimist, I would have been hard-pressed to answer. But on health-related matters, as it turned out, I was optimistic to the point of delusion. Nothing had so far come along that could not be controlled by diet, stretching, Advil, or, at worst, a prescription. So I was not at all alarmed when a mammogram—undertaken as part of the routine cancer surveillance all good citizens of HMOs or health plans are expected to submit to once they reach the age of fifty—aroused some ‘concern’ on the part of the gynaecologist. How could I have breast cancer? I had no known risk factors, there was no breast cancer in the family, I’d had my babies relatively young and nursed them both. I ate right, drank sparingly, worked out, and, besides, my breasts were so small that I figured a lump or two would probably improve my figure. When the gynaecologist suggested a follow-up mammogram four months later, I agreed only to placate her.
I thought of it as one of those drive-by mammograms, one stop in a series of mundane missions including post office, supermarket, and gym, but I began to lose my nerve in the changing room, and not only because of the kinky necessity of baring my breasts and affixing tiny X-ray opaque stars to the tip of each nipple. The changing room, really just a closet off the stark, windowless space that housed the mammogram machine, contained something far worse, I noticed for the first time—an assumption about who I am, where I am going, and what I will need when I get there. Almost all of the eye-level space had been filled with photocopied bits of cuteness and sentimentality: pink ribbons, a cartoon about a woman with iatrogenically flattened breasts, an ‘Ode to a Mammogram’, a list of the ‘Top Ten Things Only Women Understand’ (‘Fat Clothes’ and ‘Eyelash Curlers’, among them), and, inescapably, right next to the door, the poem ‘I Said a Prayer for You Today’, illustrated with pink roses.”
Do you consider yourself to be an optimist or a pessimist in relation to your health and the health of your loved ones?
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The ICU was created by Brian Lobel and Complicite, in collaboration with South London and Maudsley NHS Foundation Trust. Web design by Chipp Jansen, films by Simon Eves and design by StudioThreeSixty. It was made possible by support from the Cultural Institute at King's College London, the Wellcome Trust and the National Theatre.